Photographing Animals and Children

Today’s post is a guest post.

When the comedian WC Fields said: “Never work with animals or children!” he wasn’t talking about photography, but as we all know, taking good pictures of animals or children can be as frustrating an endeavor as it is potentially rewarding.

Whilst at first glance there don’t seem to be that many similarities between a great wildlife shot and an engaging portrait of an adorable toddler; there are a number of challenges which apply equally to both.

Unless faced with a hungry crocodile or a teenager on drugs “safety” for you and your valuable equipment isn’t usually the first aspect that springs to mind, but a flighty pony can easily trample you and your camera into the ground when startled by the flash, and a toddler could easily pull the studio lights down onto his or her head, making you somewhat unpopular with the little darling’s parents.

So let’s have a look at what we can do to get that elusive great photo of a child or an animal, with all involved emerging unscathed from the experience:

1) Cause no harm.

No photograph is worth doing harm to the subject. I have seen photographers deliberately upset children, or frighten animals “into action.” This is neither morally defensible nor safe. We want to bring out the best of our subjects and to this end we must, at all times, respect and protect them. Do not unnecessarily disturb wildlife, do not trample all over a fragile habitat, don’t ask a child to risk their safety or emotional wellbeing in the pursuit of a shot. No matter how stunning the image; if its creation compromised the subject it is just not worth it.

2) Stay safe

Yes, I quite agree: A close up of a striking adder would make an amazing picture, but if you are in hospital while the doctors look for the antidote you won’t enjoy it much. Following wildlife can be risky, especially if you need to cross dangerous terrain. Know where you are going, understand the nature of your subjects, look after yourself at all times.

Respect your subject! Even tame domestic animals can seriously hurt you (or smash your beloved camera) if startled or frightened. Safety first. No picture is worth ending up in hospital (or worse) for.

3) Get close

Now, get closer. And a bit closer still. Provided it is safe to do so the more your subject fills the frame the better your picture will generally be (shots of a lone wolf silhouetted against the full moon being one of the few exceptions)
Generally it makes sense to use a decent zoom lens so we don’t “crowd” our subject. Animals go into “flight mode” or escape; Children tend to get self conscious and start to behave unnaturally with a lens stuck in their faces.

4) Get down (or up) to eye level

Unless you want to deliberately make your subject look particularly intimidating (shoot up to it) or weak and small (shoot down) getting your lens roughly to the eye level of your subject is a good rule of thumb. It really makes all the difference and not following this rule is probably the most common mistake when taking pictures of both animals and children. Engage. Get down to their level, build up a connection (even if your subject is unaware of your presence.) When shooting larger animals side on try and position yourself roughly at roughly a right angle to their shoulder to avoid strange proportional distortions

5) Focus on the eyes

Unless there is a compelling creative reason to do otherwise, always make sure the eyes of your subject are pin-sharp. With the eyes (even sightly) out of focus the picture will lose its impact and the “connection” that makes a great shot is compromized. The human eye readily accepts a picture where, due to the subject filling the frame and a shallow depth of field for example, parts of the subject are in “soft,” or even out of focus, provided the eye is sharp. Usually if the eye is out of focus you might as well get rid of the shot. This general rule holds true whether you have the subject looking at the camera or away into the distance.

6) Composition

Our subjects, be they animals or children, are likely to be either static or in motion. Either way you need to plan your composition as this will make all the difference between a “Could have been good if….” and “great” shot.
Consider your background, avoiding busy ones or those which will clash with your subject. Often moving just a step or two either way yourself can make all the difference. Unless the background adds to the picture throw it out of focus by choosing a fairly wide aperture where appropriate. Make sure there is space for your subject to either move or look (in the case of a static shot) into.

One of the most common faults of motion pictures is to frame them in such a way that the subject appears to be either hitting the edge of the picture or appears to be “leaving the frame,” therefor leading the viewer’s eye out of the picture. If you are working within the rule of thirds always leave the extra “space” where the subject is either heading or looking.

To sum it up: The secrets to getting decent pictures of animals and children are to stay safe, be respectful, get close, get down, focus on the eye(s) and make sure your subjects are not compromised!

Happy shooting everyone!

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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